Please don't make me reenact the escape scene from Shawshank.
December 19, 2010 11:57 PM   Subscribe

[Firsttimehomeownerfilter] Please help me figure out the best way to repair/maintain my plumbing system in a newish home. Lots of complicating factors inside.

The gory details:

I bought one half of a new duplex in 2007 as an infill in an older neighbourhood in Edmonton, Alberta. The builder was self-employed and has since gone out of business and disappeared as far as I can tell. I'm on pretty good terms with the owner of the other side, although we haven't had to work together on anything.... yet.

Last week our shared sewer line backed up, enough that my neighbour's basement carpets are ruined. I only sustained a minor mess as one of my roommates was home at the time and caught it right away (we alerted them as soon as we realized what was going on but they got the worst of it).

We've had a back up once before in December 09 but wasn't nearly as bad. The city drainage department snaked and videoed the pipe (I have a copy of the recording) and told us it looks like there is a sag in the line which is collecting debris over time.

Since it is a relatively new house, the most likely explanation that I could find is that the city side is higher in older neighbourhoods, and the builder likely built the basement lower than the original house, meaning it was harder to make the required grade for proper drainage. I checked with the city who said sewer and drainage work was inspected and approved in 2006, and that they keep no records of where the pipes are on private land.

I called two contractors who viewed the tape and quoted anywhere from $5,000-20,000, depending on what needs to be excavated. They couldn't really give me a firm answer as I guess there are a lot of unknowns about how to go about fixing it at this point. Unfortunately, I don't think our home insurance covers this, and without being able to locate the builder (even just to call him some very nasty names) my suspicion is that we would have to cover the cost. I'm not terribly excited about paying for this, especially with the threat of unknown mounting costs, but it would hopefully get to the bottom of this once and for all.

The much cheaper alternative is to get the plumbing periodically snaked and be very careful about what goes down the drain. This doesn't solve the problem but does hopefully prevent any repeat flooding. Bleh.

I have so many questions:

1. Is it ridiculous to try and manage this problem and avoid digging everything up? Both contractors seemed skeptical that this would be a feasible long term solution, but they have a vested interest in digging things up, you know?

2. Is there any person or organization I could get to explain things to me that won't have a vested interest in this? Part of the problem is when I figure out something, I have to explain it to my neighbour and inevitably can't answer all of his questions.

3. Neither owner is interested in living there for the long term. If I want to sell, how important is this to get fixed beforehand? How would you go about telling prospective buyers that the nearly new plumbing needs to be snaked annually?

4. What would be the best way to share this major expense with my neighbour? What if he doesn't want/isn't able to spend the money and I want to sell? What if I go crazy trying to figure this out and have to be committed to an institution?

Thanks in advance for your help!
posted by beepbeepboopboop to Home & Garden (4 answers total)
More likely explanation is that the builder didn't lay the stone base for the drain pipes correctly and part of it sagged.

I doubt the plumbing would have been approved if this defect existed at the time of the inspection.
posted by gjc at 3:27 AM on December 20, 2010

What can you see on the video? Is the sag obvious, or were the city guys just tossing out possible explanations because they weren't certain what the problem was?

Since it sounds like you have finished basements and thus backups are likely to cause major expense, managing the condition for any length of time rather than fixing it seems like a bad idea; eventually there will be a time when the line plugs faster than expected, your neighbor's carpets or yours will be ruined again, and you'll kick yourself for not having put the carpet money towards fixing the damn pipes. I also know that if I were house shopping, I would not accept "needs to be snaked out annually" as a permanent situation. The price I'd be willing to pay for the house would drop by an amount at the upper end of the range of estimated repair costs.

I don't think our home insurance covers this.

You need to eliminate the uncertainty here. The idea that it wouldn't be covered seems strange to me, but then I've never made a homeowner's insurance claim for anything.

What would be the best way to share this major expense with my neighbour?

I'd defer dealing with this issue just now, and focus on clarifying the situation you're both stuck in. Will insurance cover all or part of this? Who's legally responsible for maintenance of shared plumbing? (Surely your deed and/or local law has something to say about this.) Can you or a contractor deduce, from looking at the video, roughly where the problem is and how big it is? Is there another contractor who can run a more sophisticated probe through the pipe to clarify the problem? At some point you'll find that you've learned as much as you can without putting a backhoe in your yard, and then you and your neighbor can figure out your best options.
posted by jon1270 at 4:06 AM on December 20, 2010

Our local water company offers insurance to cover the line from the house to the street. Maybe you can check and see if your water district has a similar program.
posted by AuntieRuth at 4:40 AM on December 20, 2010

Maybe you could run the drain pipe higher up inside of the house and install sump pumps, along with some alarms for water leaks. No idea if that would work or if it would meet code there, but it might be cheaper than digging up the yard.

As to number 2, in the US it's common for home inspection services to offer a sewer line inspection with a camera as a separate service. These services don't generally do repairs of this sort. They do generally provide a written report.

Snaking your sewer line on a regular basis can be an exciting and horrifying learning experience which will give you many stories to tell at dinner parties you may wish to ruin, especially if you decide to save on the fees and do it yourself. Whether this is feasible depends on how willing you are to clean up potential sewer backups v.s. whether you have to money to replace the line. Also, if you have storm water draining into the sewers it makes it possible to flood the house when no one is home, so that would lean towards replacing.

One thing you can do is run a lot of water at once (full bathtub) through the sewer line every week or so in hopes of clearing out any accumulation. Don't try this if it's already clogged of course.
posted by yohko at 2:32 PM on December 20, 2010

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